Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Mr. Blue thanks you for your kind and funny notes in the wake of his heart operation, from which he is slowly mending, thank you very much. Still not bench-pressing Volkswagens or joining the rugby scrum, but able to sit at the table with everyone else and make appropriate responses.
The convalescent life is a good life, just like in the movies. You sit in a chair with a blanket over your lap and soak up sunshine on a brick patio and someone brings you tea and toast and various visitors come and converse gently on pleasant low-impact topics and inquire as to your well-being: What’s not to like?
A heart operation is one of the best medical adventures one can have. The art is highly advanced, the prognosis is good and if you’re at a great hospital (which I was), you can take a jaunty approach to the thing, joke with the nurses, smile gallantly at your loved ones in preop and march bravely into the darkness. And then the light shines again. And then you start to learn something about yourself and your nature in time of illness (reclusive). You feel the primal urge to crawl deep into the cave and lie in the dark and lick your wounds and comprehend this large experience. You appreciate the solitude. You do not want too many well-wishers, men in clown suits, etc. In my book, nobody should ever feel bad about not phoning or visiting the sick. The sick man has much to think about and you shouldn’t try to dissuade him.
Illness offers the chance to think long thoughts about the future (praying that we yet have one, dear God), and so I have, and so this is the last column of Mr. Blue, under my authorship, for Salon.
Over the years, Mr. Blue’s strongest advice has come down on the side of freedom in our personal lives, freedom from crushing obligation and overwork and family expectations and the freedom to walk our own walk and be who we are. And some of the best letters have been addressed to younger readers trapped in jobs like steel suits, advising them to bust loose and go off and have an adventure. Some of the advisees have written back to inform Mr. Blue that the advice was taken and that the adventure changed their lives. This was gratifying.
So now I am simply taking my own advice. Cut back on obligations: Promote a certain elegant looseness in life. Simple as that. Winter and spring, I almost capsized from work, and in the summer I had a week in St. Mary’s Hospital to sit and think, and that’s the result. Every dog has his day and I’ve had mine and given whatever advice was mine to give (and a little more). It was exhilarating to get the chance to be useful, which is always an issue for a writer (What good does fiction do?), and Mr. Blue was a way to be useful. Nothing human is beneath a writer’s attention; the basic questions about how to attract a lover and what to do with one once you get one and how to deal with disappointment in marriage are the stuff that fiction is made from, so why not try to speak directly? And so I did. And now it’s time to move on.
So adieu to Mr. Blue. My thanks to Ruth Henrich, who is in the pantheon of great copy editors, and also to the wily Web tycoon David Talbot, and special thanks to all the correspondents who generously shared their qualms and predicaments. Do good work and be well and enjoy your life.
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Dear Mr. Blue,
Ah, where to begin?
I am 36, widowed two years ago when my wife and children were killed in an accident. I have recovered to where I feel social again and have developed a good friendship with a woman who is my doctoral advisor and mentor in graduate school, divorced nine months ago, no children. We have known each other well for seven years, and after her husband left her, we spent many hours talking about life and loss, sadness and pain, happiness and hope, etc. There has been on many occasions the unmistakable spark of romantic interest. She is intelligent, beautiful, funny and, like me, alone. I find myself continually drawn more to her.
Now I have a formal social engagement where I need to bring a date. Neither of us has dated since we became single again. How should I invite her? I don’t want to risk the friendship by seeming too eager for romance, but I think I need to take the chance.
You pick up a telephone and dial her number and when you reach her, you ask her to join you for the social engagement. Or, if the time for that is past, you ask her to have dinner or go to a movie. This is not a treacherous slope, it’s ordinary social interaction. It is to put you and her on a different social footing, to change the parameters of what’s permissible or expected so as to clear the way for the expression of personal feeling. Don’t be afraid. Call her. You do need to take the chance. If you can’t bring yourself to do it, write back and I’ll tell you the same thing.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I’ve been dating a great guy for the past eight months. He’s kind, gentle and funny, and we are fundamentally great friends and companions. However, he is Dutch and will return to Holland within the next year — plans that don’t include me. He hasn’t asked me to go, and I don’t think I’m ready to start a new life in a foreign country.
Most of the time I’m happy with his companionship, but sometimes I find it hard to deal with the given expiration date on our relationship and wonder if I shouldn’t be devoting my energies and emotions toward someone with whom I could share a future. Do I content myself with the simple joys of the time we have together or should I ease myself out of this ticking relationship before my emotions become more deeply woven?
I favor enjoying the friendship and savoring the simple joys and let the future arrive whenever it arrives. A sweet love like this one is instructive to the heart; you learn so much about the pure act of giving and receiving affection and living in the present, and this will be useful to you when you’re with a guy with whom you seem to have a vast and logical future extending into infinity. You will know that the future, even a logical one, is built this morning and this afternoon and tomorrow and Saturday.
Dear Mr. Blue,
At 26, I have spent six years living with my boyfriend, Jacob (also 26). Four years ago, I was diagnosed with a degenerative auto-immune disease that has ravaged my organs and nervous system. I spend a good lot of time in hospitals and in bed. I fall frequently. I am plagued with blood clots. Most of my organs are inflamed and deficient. I have no idea if I will live four more years or 40. Jacob picks me up when I fall. He sleeps with me in hospital beds. He skips shows and invitations from friends in favor of keeping me company as I cry or freak out because I am in pain or weak or temporarily unable to use the right side of my body. We are truly in love, enjoy each other, understand and encourage each other, and are at a point where we plan to marry in the next year or two. But I worry that he will burn out. And I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that a few years ago, I was an independent, energetic, fearless woman (the woman he fell in love with) and am now a sick, scared woman. I feel that I’d be crazy to think he won’t tire of caring for me and my physical mess, and will, some sad day, take off. He is so brilliant and attractive and dear, and I worry that I am keeping him from a more free life. Yet, after losing so much of my life to this disease, I don’t think I could bear losing him, too. What to do?
Dependent and Hating It
You are thinking right thoughts when you worry about overburdening him. These things do happen. But the fear of losing him is nothing you can take up with him: That would only make you seem pathetic. So the reasonable and difficult course is to take independent steps to regain your independence. Find other people you can confide in so he’s not the only one. Pursue aggressively the issue of pain management. And don’t think about marriage right now: Focus on the short-term good. He is with you now, and that’s good, and tomorrow is another day. You’re not keeping him from a freer life, you’re helping him become a kinder and more caring person.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am a senior in college in the Northeast. I am half an hour from my parents’ home. I am very close to them, and they want me to move home after graduation. I want to move to the West Coast for graduate school or for a job. My dad is 67 years old and his health isn’t great. I think if I moved away and something happened to him, I would feel eternally guilty. It would be an emotional strain on my family if I moved away. But I am a little resentful that my parents want me to live a sheltered life, close to them, whereas I want to try something new. I love them dearly and I am thankful for them but I feel it’s time to fly the coop. But I don’t want to break their hearts! Any advice?
You’re going in circles, dear, and when you come back around to the idea of moving to the West Coast, stop and take that road and don’t look back. You are not responsible for your dad’s health; emotional strain comes with being a parent. Feel grateful that your parents crave your company and tell them you’re going west and then go and enjoy the freedom.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am a college senior with a girlfriend I love very much. But I am spending most of the coming year studying in Buenos Aires, and frankly, I’d like the freedom to have sexual relationships with other people. I know my girlfriend doesn’t really see things the way I do; I know she won’t understand that I just need a little time to mess around. Is this one of those things women never understand? How do I tell her how I’m feeling without totally breaking her heart?
The lovely young women of Buenos Aires may not be longing for a gringo to fool around with. I don’t know. Maybe there’s a big crowd of them lined up at the airport waving handkerchiefs and all you need do is offer a couple of Hershey bars and a pair of nylons. Or maybe you could spend a miserable lonely year there, wondering what happened to your manly allure that it has no value. In any case, you tell your girlfriend now that you are going to Argentina as a single, unencumbered man and you leave no doubt about it and make it stick. A crucial part of your education is to learn how to disappoint someone and do it to her face and without craven apology or pointless explanations and let her down gracefully. Nobody grows up knowing how to do this; it must be learned. A man who never learns to do this is going to get into some truly dreadful predicaments in life.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am a 32-year-old woman, and have been with my husband for nine years. Two years ago I had a three-month-long affair. At the time, I thought it was wild and passionate, but looking back it was just ridiculous. The good thing about the affair is that it helped my marriage; I learned to appreciate my wonderful husband more, and our sex life improved immensely.
The problem is that I sometimes feel overwhelmed with guilt over the affair. When my husband tells me how wonderful and perfect I am, I think, NO! I’m not! If only you knew!
I don’t plan to tell him about the affair. It would burden him and make him lose his trust in me. And I have no need or desire to stray again. I want to feel good about myself again, and don’t want to carry this burden around with me forever. How can I get rid of it?
Tired of the Guilt
I forgive you and so would he, though you’re right not to tell him. But perhaps you’re in need of simple narrative therapy. You call up a nice psychologist and make an appointment to sit and tell her the whole story and how you still feel lousy about what happened. It can ease your spirit to hear this come out of your own mouth and bounce off the walls and not be resonating and resonating inside your head. But to sometimes feel guilty about such a large experience is not so surprising. Life isn’t a rehearsal.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I recently befriended a girl I met at a local coffee shop. We started talking about God and faith and religion, and we formed a wonderful friendship. However, as time went on, she started falling in love with me. When she first told me this, I gently explained that I wasn’t interested, but now she shows up at my house unannounced at least three times a week, and when I ask her to leave, she won’t go. And when we hug goodbye (yes, I’m a hugger), she holds on just a little too long.
I’m growing tired of this. I’m starting to feel like I’m dating this girl against my will. Without hurting her feelings (which I know from experience are fragile), how do I tell my friend that I need my space?
You decide when to have the Conversation with her and then you have it. In this conversation, you are gentle but not as gentle as you’ve been before. Your gentility has been pushed hard and it must push back. Perhaps she thinks she is getting romantic inklings from you, maybe her horoscope tells her to be aggressive, maybe she senses emanations from your houseplants. Whatever, you must now cut through whatever illusions she’s under and make yourself clear. The problem is to be definite without anger, to turn up the volume slightly. But no matter how fragile her feelings, she’ll be hurt more by your indecisiveness than by your resolution.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I’m a 25-year-old woman who just moved to Los Angeles to take a job, the first meaningful, nontemp, nonclerical, non-coffee shop job I’ve had, and it didn’t hurt that Scott already lives out here. He and I have been close for about five years, but it’s been a tangled relationship. When we first met, we fell head-over-heels for each other, and dated for about six months. Since then, we’ve been “friends,” though I’ve pined away for him and he’s pined for me. It is wonderful that we have weathered so much awfulness and are still so close. The problem is, I am in love with him. And he doesn’t seem to know quite what he wants from me. We are often mistaken for a couple. We hold hands a lot. He puts his arm around me a lot. When I see him, he hugs me longer than one normally hugs a mere friend. When he stays over at my house, he cuddles up to me. We kiss, sometimes even really kiss, but nothing else. This kind of contact feels like it has to mean something.
We’ve talked about it. He knows how I feel, and he says that he loves me more than anyone, but not in a romantic way. What to do?
I’m afraid this is a question of your stamina and tolerance and ability to ride with the waves. He’s been as honest about his feelings as he can be and you have the choice of hanging up the phone or accepting him for the semi-demi-romantic pal that he is. My guess is that you’ll go on seeing him. (Why turn down honest affection?) And that this will be delightful and agonizing. And then something else will happen. He’ll introduce you to Bruce. Or he’ll wake up and ask you to marry him. Or he’ll move to Seattle.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am 24, a college student, mother of a daughter, getting divorced from a horrible man. Recently, I was at a local gas station filling up my tank when a voice called out to me and it was my very first boyfriend, from when I was 14 and he was 16. We exchanged numbers and spoke a few times by phone and e-mail, and all the old feelings were there. The problem is that “John” has been married for four years and is very much in love with his wife and kids. However, one thing has led to another and we have fallen into a rather serious physical relationship. It is unlike anything I have ever felt and it is like he is a drug or something. I know we should end it and he agrees. However, there is this connection there and we are like 16 years old again. It is rather difficult to discuss. We know it is wrong and unhealthy, but every time we meet to end it, we end up in bed and not wanting to get out. Of course we should break it off, but it is so hard. What do you suggest?
You seem to have no interest in ending this affair; it’s satisfying to you, and all the guilt is his. For you, it’s exciting and fulfilling and absolutely cost-free. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s wrong. And when people do bad things with their eyes open, they dull their consciences, and this makes them dangerous to others. If you’re asking me to provide you with a conscience, I can’t. We’re each living in our own murk and darkness and trying to do the right thing. Try harder.
Dear Mr. Blue,
For the first time in years, I’m in love with the sort of man I’ve often fantasized about. We have been dating for six months now, but the problem is that I don’t know if we’ll ever manage to integrate our lives. He has half custody of a 7-year-old son, who I find very spoiled, emotionally insecure and overly possessive of his father. They sleep together. He thinks his father’s bedroom is his, too. My boyfriend has never had me stay over when his son is there. I myself have a 13-year-old daughter, who doesn’t mind if he sleeps over, and even when she was 7, I would have had men over. The four of us do things from time to time, like dinner and a movie, but his son is always a bit bratty. My boyfriend did broach the idea of the four of us going away together, but I think his son would make a fuss if his father and I were to share a room. Anyway, about two months ago I did talk to my boyfriend about how he has to teach his son to be more independent if he wants our relationship to grow, and it doesn’t look like he’s doing much about it. I wonder if I’m being too demanding, and if I should just be content with our once-a-week dates until his son matures some more. I’ve never been in this situation before and realize that there is always tons of baggage when people in their mid-40s have a relationship, but I do want to get remarried at some point and figure out a way to make this work without waiting for years. So how can I deal with this reasonably?
Disillusioned but Hopeful
Don’t let a 7-year-old lead you around. Bratty kids grow up eventually. Meanwhile, forget about staying at your boyfriend’s house and don’t concern yourself with his philosophy of child-rearing. Excuse yourself from any big plans for “family” trips that seem fraught with potential for trouble. Focus on enjoying the good things between you and him and accept that this relationship is going to take time. Is it worth the investment? Only you and he know. Somewhere down deep in your heart you have a sense of this and you ought to listen to how you feel.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My boyfriend of almost five years recently proposed, I accepted and we announced our engagement to his family and mine. I’ve announced our engagement to all of my friends, and we shared the announcement with some mutual friends. My fiancé has been a confirmed bachelor until now (he’s 40 and has never been married, engaged or in a live-in relationship), and seems very reluctant to tell his fellow bachelor friends that he proposed. Some of these friends of his are in long-term, committed relationships, but they have all sworn off marriage. Fine by me. But it’s been almost a month, and he has yet to give them our happy news. When I asked why, he said that he wanted to tell them in person. So now he’s seen them all in person. I asked why, again, and he said he wanted for us to tell them together. So now we’ve seen them together. And they didn’t even notice the ring!
I’m afraid that deep down he doesn’t want to tell the members of the bachelor brotherhood, the people who know him best, because he really doesn’t want to be engaged or to get married. Plus, when people ask us about a wedding date, I say next summer, he says the summer after that. We haven’t set a date, and he avoids all conversations about specific plans. I’m very hurt, but I don’t want to push. How patient do I have to be, and when is enough, enough?
The purpose of engagement is to wave off the competition and give the couple a quiet pond of loyalty and commitment in which they can get to know each other. In olden times, engagements tended to be very short, and in modern times, when couples leap into bed on the third date, the idea of engagement is slightly quaint, but nonetheless it is there. It lets you see each other up close, socially tied to each other, and see each other’s families. Many engagements are broken (though not nearly enough), and that is always a live option right up to the playing of the Mendelssohn and the grand procession. Your boyfriend’s reluctance to tell his bachelor brotherhood is not so big an issue as the inability of the two of you to agree on a mutually acceptable wedding date. This is a pretty basic and straightforward question, and if he’s avoiding the decision, and any conversation leading up to it, it doesn’t bode well at all. Give back the ring and tell him to take a few months and think about what he wants to do. And you think about it, too. Don’t be a prisoner to convention. Don’t hurtle forward toward marriage to a man who makes you feel bad.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am graduating from a fancy-pants law school next year, having gone to a fancy-pants college, and excelled in both places. My parents paid for everything and I’m really grateful to them for doing that. However, I have discovered I don’t really want to be a lawyer. I am at a big law firm this summer, and I don’t like the work and I don’t think I do it very well. Lawyering is not the intellectual struggle for justice I thought it would be; basically it is a grind. I’ve never had a real job before — I’m only 24 and have been in school since I was 3. Am I just being spoiled and lazy? Ungrateful? Part of me thinks I should appreciate how lucky I have been and just sit down and write those motions and briefs, and part of me wants to finish the novel I started in college, teach handicapped kids how to swim, maybe run a dog-walking service, anything but sitting in front of my computer writing boring motions for big corporations. I don’t know how, or where, to start, though, and I am getting married next June to the most amazing man I have ever met, so I can’t so easily take off for Peru.
Give lawyering a chance for a couple years. You’ve worked hard to prepare yourself and it would be a cheat to simply walk away from it on a whim. Take it as an experience. Lawyers are the closest thing we have to a conscience in this country; without them, big government and big corporations would run roughshod over us. Unlike journalists, lawyers are held to a code of ethics and when they violate it, they can lose their butts. Of course there’s drudgery — there was drudgery in your education and there’s more in your career — but it does have a noble end. Give it two years and then, if you’re not cut out for it, you can write a bestselling novel about a dog walker and use the windfall profits to build a swimming pool for handicapped kids.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am 25 years old, and I have only been really truly deeply in love twice in my life. The first time was three years ago with an instructor of mine in college. I was very happy and rearranged some of my life to accommodate him, and then found out that he had another girlfriend. He told me this as he was dumping me. I was heartbroken. I hurt in all kinds of new and unanticipated ways, for a very long time. Betrayal was nothing I ever expected.
I got on with my life, I dated some, I had some crushes, but nothing major. Then, a year or so ago, something major. I am in love again, crazily deeply head-over-heels. He makes me very happy. He is a sweet, wonderful, funny, brilliant man, and I adore him. It is a long-distance relationship, but we manage to see one another at least once a month. I am rearranging my life again. I want to be with this man for a very long time. But the thing that scares me is how, after True Love No. 1, I’ve become a frantically jealous harpy; I have anxiety attacks, and sleepless nights, and crying jags and tantrums, imagining the insidious presence of Other Women, whole harems of them. I see deception at every turn. I have become a paranoid nitwit, and I am making myself insufferable to this man I love and driving myself insane.
And I know this, rationally, but rational me can’t seem to exorcise awful panicky me. This can’t go on, I can’t keep having sleepless worries and calling him up with peculiar probing questions. It has to stop. He makes me happy, and I want to just be happy and be with him, happily, the way I once used to be. Oh, Mr. Blue. How can I fix this? Help, help.
You were able to write this coherent letter about your situation and that’s a good first step. A second step would be to visit your friendly neighborhood doctor and see if you can’t get this anxiety and sleeplessness reduced. There are short-term palliative measures that simply would make life a little easier for you. There’s a new generation of nonbarbiturate sleeping pills, for example, that is safer and won’t make you dopey, and one shouldn’t underestimate the benefits of sleep. You’re not a nitwit, you’re an intelligent young woman who is obsessively chewing on your foot, and you should look for a simple temporary solution until you can join Mr. Wonderful and live happily ever after.
Dear Mr. Blue,
A college friend of mine, recently married, told me that I seem “closed off” to having a relationship and maybe this is why I’m still single. I don’t doubt her diagnosis, and I have been giving it a lot of thought. I’m a happily independent, kind-hearted, not-ugly, smart chick who has always believed that when it’s meant to happen, it will, so major, Rules-like effort in this area is usually a waste of time and guaranteed to scare people.
My understanding is that men usually flip for happily independent babes. But now I’m wondering if I’m giving off some sort of secret standoffish vibe to potentially available men, and if I have met or will meet Mr. Wonderful, I won’t know it because I’m so closed off (as my friend pointed out).
So my question: How do I unclose myself to the idea of a relationship without driving men away reeking of desperation?
Open for Business
Romance happens between individuals and any generalizations about when it happens and to whom are strictly for amusement and not meant to be taken seriously. I can tell you that most men are incapable of close friendships with other men and are in search of women confidantes and when a man finds one, a woman he can talk easily to and who he trusts and who welcomes his affection, then that’s the doorway to romance. But it’s not particularly useful advice to a woman. (How does one go about being a confidante to a dullard or a bully?) You describe yourself as happily independent and that’s all to the good, not because it makes you more attractive to men but simply because it’s a good way to live. If this gives off some secret vibe to potential suitors, too bad for them: The vibe is in their minds, not yours. When you meet a man you consider wonderful, you’ll know it, and you’ll let him know that you know it, and until then, don’t second-guess yourself.
Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.More Garrison Keillor.
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